By David Roach
NASHVILLE — As worship pastor Andrew Lucius selects songs for Christmas worship, he is considering specific needs in the Georgia congregation he serves. Among his conclusions: singing only the first verse of familiar carols could leave worshipers spiritually malnourished.
The widow “who’s going through the Christmas season the first time this year without her husband … needs more than the first verse of ‘Joy to the World!’” said Lucius, associate pastor of music and worship at Bull Street Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. “She needs to sing, ‘No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.’
“When she’s feeling the power of the curse and its application in death, I want her to be singing and believing that,” Lucius said.
This Christmas, Lucius and other worship leaders are urging churches not to neglect subsequent verses of favorite hymns like “Joy to the World!” “Silent Night,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Those verses shape worshipers’ souls, they say, and are rich in theological truth like:
- “Son of God, love’s pure light”;
- “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity”; and
- “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”
Scott Aniol, associate professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press “a lot of Christmas hymns are narrative in nature and tell the whole incarnation story … If you skip a stanza, you’re missing a chunk of the narrative.”
Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship, urged churches not only to sing neglected verses of carols, but also Christian hymns that tend to be neglected altogether — like “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne,” “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.”
“Whoever is planning worship should understand they are a curator of an almost infinite amount of material,” Harland told BP, “and they need to be very informed. Any worship leader … would be well served to find some old hymnals, do some research and find some of the rich, beautiful texts that come from some of these classic Christmas carols that, quite frankly, may be overlooked.”
Scott Shepherd, worship and music specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, agrees with his colleagues and favors singing hymns in their entirety.
“At the same time, I want to be gracious to preserve the flexibility and autonomy of local churches and their leaders to be in the best position to discern the needs of their fellowships,” he observed. “While I prefer singing hymns in their entirety, I certainly won’t begrudge a congregation or its leaders for choosing to do otherwise.”
Shepherd offered several reasons for allowing flexibility regarding hymns.
(1) Many hymns and carols have already been pruned by hymnal editorial boards. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” originally had four stanzas, eventually swelled to eight, and only three are included in the 2008 Baptist hymnal. “The First Noel” has six stanzas, while most now sing only four, Shepherd noted.
“Hymnal committees, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have been empowered through history to make these types of decisions and alterations,” Shepherd added.
“Local church leaders enjoy the same privilege. They may make decisions to shorten hymns and carols as long as they do so with spiritual and theological discernment and avoid making these choices flippantly. If we elect not to sing a particular stanza, let’s be sure we have a strong rationale and justification for doing so.”
(2) Singing entire hymns and carols “helps us avoid omitting portions of the biblical narrative or missing theological truths a hymn author is trying to convey,” he pointed out. “On the flip side, every carol begins and ends at a particular point in the biblical narrative and has specific theological emphases. In other words, every hymn is limited in scope. I am okay, therefore, if a worship pastor chooses to limit a hymn’s scope further by choosing to sing only one or two stanzas.”
(3) At times it may be wise to cut certain stanzas from the songs (or even entire carols), Shepherd observed. “Biblical truth and theological accuracy are essential. Unfortunately, some familiar and beloved carols are better examples of romantic sentimentality than they are of biblical and theological truth,” he said.
“They mix biblical truth with conjecture — adding to what we actually know from Scripture with historical tales and fictional accounts. But that’s an article for another time,” Shepherd concluded.
(4) Shepherd said he likes to add a stanza not usually included in the hymnals or standard versification. “Our congregations sometimes go on auto-pilot as they sing familiar carols, so including a fresh, rarely used stanza may serve to deepen a Christmas hymn’s spiritual impact,” he observed.
— B&R Editor Lonnie Wilkey contributed to this article.